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Seeking Higher Ground: Coping with an overheated climate of anxiety

Locations: Columns Published

“Is this the house you’re giving to the church?” my friend asked. After I nodded, he commented, “That’s a very generous gift.”

Generous – or worthless? 

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As I told Larry, everything in this valley depends on snow in its various forms. It’s not just that Aspen tourism provides the cornerstone for the local economy, it’s that all our economic endeavors depend on that silver dusting that mercifully reappeared on Mt. Sopris this week. 

Without snow, we wouldn’t have skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling. But without melted snow, we wouldn’t have Palisade peaches. Western Slope agriculture. Ranching. Or Gold Medal fishing. Or whitewater rafting. Or forests filled with aspens, spruces and wildflowers for tourists to come see. 

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Yes, we locals do head to Utah’s deserts to hike. But what if our local climate morphed into that of Rangely over the next 20 years? Projections say that’s likely. What would that do to local businesses? Jobs? Property values? 

Twenty years is longer than I’m supposed to live, but I’m having a tough time wrestling with a foreshortened future. It’s not just that my own years are numbered, but also that civilization’s chances seem slim.

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As I have imagined the cascading effects climate collapse will have on humans – droughts, famines, wars and billions of refugees  – I have gradually abandoned the idea of writing a memoir. What would be the point? Increasingly, even small acts like bequeathing my home have begun to feel like acts of blind faith or futility, I’m not sure which. 

Then, deep breath! If I had survived the Titanic, I would have been one of those who lead the singing in the lifeboats. So I paint and keep writing columns.

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For 67-year-old me, climate collapse looks like a Sisyphean tragedy. But for a 16-year-old like Greta Thunberg, it looms with titanic menace. Reflecting on the school strike she undertook two years ago, Thunberg wrote, “Why should any young person be made to study for a future when no one is doing enough to save that future?”

In early October, three parents showed up at the Aspen Board of Education’s meeting to complain about the schools’ response to climate change. According to the Aspen Times, the parents describe themselves as environmentally conscious enough to recycle, but reject what they consider to be “climate change histrionics.”

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A little backstory here: In preparation for last month’s global climate strike – during which 401 Aspen high school and middle school students joined a protest that was not endorsed by the school district – some teachers showed National Geographic’s film “Explorer: Bill Nye’s Global Meltdown.” In it, scientist Guy McPherson expresses his view that the world will end by 2030 due to a warming climate.

Some Aspen kids, unsurprisingly, found that prediction terrifying. When Greta Thunberg learned of it a few years back, she stopped eating and talking. 

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At times, this approaching cataclysm stuns me into silence too. I understand why parents want to protect their kids from it. 

I wish someone could protect me from the terror I feel over three billion missing birds, methane boiling out of the Arctic’s melting permafrost and evacuations due to wildfires. Intellectually, I agree with the parent who said, “I don’t think anybody here can or will say the Earth is going to end in 12 years. So why in the hell are we telling these kids that, and basically giving them no reason to live?”

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At the core of the parents’ concern is a struggle to hang onto something emotionally essential: hope. 

I sympathize. More, I empathize. As a teen, I struggled with depression. I contemplated suicide. (Bullying added to my woes. Some Aspen kids reportedly were bullied and that is categorically reprehensible.) Depression can be paralyzing. Even for adult me, the spectre of climate collapse makes it difficult to contemplate planting a tree in my yard. When I think about leaving bequests to my favorite local nonprofits – The Sopris Sun, my Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist congregation – I buffet between hope and despair. Will those organizations be here, will our TOWNS even be here, after I am gone?

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The planet, I’m sure, will survive. But I’m not at all sure that our country or civilization, let alone our local land values, will. 

Adults often feel duty-bound to offer hope to the young. But Greta Thunberg says she doesn’t want our hope. She wants us to panic, to act like the house is on fire.

Much as I empathize with the Aspen parents’ desire to safeguard their kids, I’m feeling the flames. Experience has taught me that denial offers no defense against despair, and I’m afraid that censoring the news won’t prepare the next generation to deal with the reality of climate collapse. 

Ironically, the best hope I see on the horizon comes from the young who are yelling, “Fire!”

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